2020 Mercedes-Benz GLS 580 Review: Wafting Wunderkind

Up until this 2020 model, the GLS has never really convinced me it needed to exist.

I understood it from a business perspective. The previous GLS, and the original GL before it, served a pretty basic purpose: Mercedes needed a big SUV to keep its customers from looking at Escalades and Navigators. It was a box-ticking exercise, and lacked that feeling of solid, last-forever quality that makes the venerable S-Class such an icon.

For its third generation, the GLS is a slightly different beast. Bigger but softer in shape than before, it’s polished up and went to finishing school. Featuring piles of tech, a serenely smooth ride, and more than enough space for seven people and their stuff, the GLS is the big luxury family hauler for those that need three rows, but still want to be able to tow or even go off-road when the opportunity arises. It’s as likeable as it is sizeable.

Big softie

Previous generations of the GLS were never what you’d consider elegant. Now that SUVs are the main attraction in the auto market—and Mercedes has clearly aligned this chonky boi as the S-Class of its SUV range—the GLS has a more refined style. It’s softer up front, with thinner headlights and a curvier bumper design. The taillights are also sleeker, with a horizontal design similar to the GLE, which the GLS shares its platform with.

Also like its little brother, the GLS features an aggressive tumblehome. When looking at the SUV directly head-on, the tumblehome is the amount of taper from bottom to top. It’s particularly noticeable from behind, which gives the GLS the impression of a literal mountain.

Standard wheel sizes start at 20 inches for the six-cylinder model. 21s are optional, or the starting point for this GLS 580 model. You can go all the way up to some smart-looking 23-inchers, though our tester sits on multi-spoke 22s. They’re modest, and paired with the black paint, help the GLS look ever so slightly less gargantuan than it is.

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GLS: Giant Lounge Space

Mercedes stretched the GLS by a hair over three inches (77 mm) for the 2020 generation, bringing total length to 205 inches (5,207 mm). Most of that (2.4 inches / 60 mm) has gone into the wheelbase, maximizing the space for passengers. In fact, the German automaker says even those around the 6’4″ range should be comfortable in this luxurious way-back. I wasn’t able to stick anybody that tall back there, but I can tell you this 5’10” writer was more than comfortable in the third row. That’s even with the second row as far back as it can be.

This being a six-figure German luxury car, of course access to the back is power-operated. The seats take their time to fold up and out of the way, and leave a surprisingly non-luxurious view of exposed seat rails and related gubbins. I’d be a little worried about nicking any nice shoes ambling in and out with any regularity—and lousy weather wouldn’t help.

The middle row is the place to be, however. This particular GLS comes with the Premium Rear Seating Package ($3,750 / $5,600 CAD), which drops a 7.0-inch tablet into the fold-down armrest. From this, you can control the second-row climate and seat heating, as well as select from a range of massages. Need your phone to charge? There’s a wireless pad back here too, in addition to the one up front, and the nine USB-C ports peppered throughout the cabin. The amount of second-row adjustability makes it easy to get supremely comfortable, the level at which entire states could disappear under the GLS’ wheels without you getting sore.

SEE ALSO: 2020 Volvo XC90 T8 Review

Front-row occupants get the same access to massaging functions, plus heated and ventilated seats. The seats are some of the most comfortable I’ve spent time in all year: only the Volvo XC90 can compete, with its own massage programs earning higher marks from my better half. The only part of the front-row experience I’m not sold is the pair of huge grab handles either side of the transmission tunnel. They look cool, and no doubt serve a purpose when the GLS heads off-tarmac, but the aluminum trim reflects something awful in the side windows.

What’s under the hood?

Nestled within that tall nose is a permutation of Mercedes’ venerable 4.0-liter turbo V8. Power is a wholly ample 483 horsepower, backed up by 516 lb-ft. That’s not all though: the GLS 580 uses the brand’s EQ Boost mild-hybrid system, which features a 48-volt battery and an integrated starter motor. It adds an extra 21 hp and 184 lb-ft here and there, ensuring there’s effectively zero turbo lag when you bury the right pedal. It works: the GLS has that same effortless ability to pile on speed as a big-displacement, naturally-aspirated mill. 62 mph (100 km/h) shows up in as little as 5.3 seconds.

The bent-eight even provides a rumbly soundtrack to remind you of where your extra cash went. It’s not the naughty note of the AMG models—that’d be uncouth here—but like that instant-access shove, it’s addictive all the same.

Of course, you’ll also get a reminder at the pumps. The EPA quotes the 580 at a thirsty 18 mpg average, split between 16 city and 21 highway. Canada’s NRCAN doesn’t list Northern equivalents. During my week with the big Merc, it averaged just slightly less than 17 mpg. That was with a fairly steady diet of highway miles too, where the mild-hybrid system can allow the engine to shut off during coasting.

For reference, the BMW X7 M50i runs it close, with EPA ratings of 15 city, 21 highway, and 17 combined. The Lincoln Navigator matches the Merc’s numbers too, but can do it on regular gas.

Magic carpet ride

The GLS comes standard with an electronically-controlled air suspension. It can raise and lower on command, or automatically depending on speed. No matter the speed, it insulates passengers from all but the absolute worst road imperfections.

From behind the wheel, there’s a sense of calm and security from the GLS’ wheel that is incredibly comforting. Every input feels deliberate but not labored, from the linear pedals to the right-sized steering wheel.

The GLS’ ride is as cushy as those second-row headrest pillows, but that doesn’t mean it wallows. No, Mercedes’ engineers have found an ideal damper tune, allowing the GLS to smooth out bumps on the road while still feeling positive and (comparatively) agile when that same road curves. You’re not going to confuse it with a sportier option like the X7, even set to Sport mode, but that doesn’t really mesh with the GLS’ attitude anyway. Nonetheless, the GLS doesn’t embarrass itself if the sporting mode takes you. You’re keenly aware of the weight—and that rearview mirror reminds you how far back the body extends—but even when pushed hard, the GLS remains consistent and predictable.

High-tech family hauler

This wouldn’t be a modern Mercedes if it didn’t have a suite of high-tech goodness. I was smitten with the MBUX system in the A-Class that debuted it, and it’s just as good here in the GLS. Twin 12.3-inch screens handle display duties up front, with crisp graphics that are easy to read at any time of day. Mercedes knows the value of offering drivers different input devices too. In addition to touchscreen controls, there’s also a central trackpad, and two tiny thumb-sized ones on the wheel. The latter items could be recipes for disaster, but instead they’re calibrated just right, making it feel natural to quickly flick through menus with them.

SEE ALSO: 2019 Mercedes-Benz A 220 Sedan Review

As the S-Class of Mercedes’ vast SUV lineup, the GLS features pretty much every bit of tech the company could throw at it. Augmented navigation remains one of my personal favorites, overlaying arrows on a front-facing camera feed in real-time. It makes navigating unknown city centers a breeze.

Special mention to the window wipers too. With tiny laser-etched holes for the fluid, their smooth action is enough to illicit oohs and ahhs from passengers. The regular style of cleaning your windshield just feels so gauche, right?

The voice assistant proved to be a little too eager to help. Any mention of “Mercedes” brought it out, and it would sometimes take numerous attempts to get it to disengage. At one point it even responded to “these CDs”. That said, I did use it to call out navigation routes pretty routinely: the system is accurate, and it didn’t interrupt my phone’s Spotify playback.

Mercedes’ LED interior lighting remains a consistent wow factor for anybody who sees it. It’s such a simple addition, yet really elevates the interior ambiance, especially at night.

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Verdict: 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLS 580 Review

I liked the GLS far more than I expected to during our week together. The magic carpet ride it provided helped take the sting out of packed highways. Its electrically-assisted V8 made short work of any demands I had of it, with just the faintest whoofle coming from far ahead. Its tech suite is vast, but never feels overwhelming—well, except that over-eager voice assistant.

In this third generation, the GLS has finally earned that third letter in its name. The V8 is a thirsty bugger—and pricey too, starting at just shy of $100,000 before options—but its smooth attitude and vast reserves of power make it the perfect match for the GLS’ character. It’s the engine I’d opt for if I needed to transport six friends across country.

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